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Reflections and tips for ‘living’ and ‘managing’ your PhD


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Written by Professor Penny Cavenagh.  

Doing a PhD for me was one of the most arduous, exhilarating, frustrating, and rewarding experiences of my life.

The whole gamut of emotions was tested along a spectrum ranging from despair to euphoria. At the end of the day, it is tenacity, determination and commitment that underpin completion and hopefully success. In my view, it is the first fundamental requirement for completion – the reason for doing a PhD in the first place.

The pre-requisite therefore for sustaining oneself through the process is the profound belief that you really want a PhD and that you are genuinely interested in the subject matter. Reasons may vary individually but if the reason goes or withers on the vine, so will the PhD. Having said this someone half way through a PhD could lose sight of the reason but because so much energy, time, emotion  has been invested in the process continues to the finishing line rather than giving up – based perhaps on weighing the costs with benefits of gaining a PhD.

My next tip is organisation of how and where a PhD will fit into one’s busy life. By organisation, I don’t just mean time management but simple practicalities, for example, where will you choose to work or where to keep all your PhD ‘stuff’ together, safe, organised and accessible. Of course, many choose to do this all on line – so it is more a matter of having a quiet place to work conducive to deep thought and minimal interruption.

I made the mistake when I did my PhD many moons ago of abandoning this ‘rule’ and deciding to read all my printed articles and book chapters in the comfort of a quiet living room. Roll on three hours later, after vacating the room and my newly acquired puppies had a field day destroying piles of articles and carefully annotated notes and books. Several days of work in their tummies! I was tempted to acknowledge their ’help’ in my Acknowledgements , with the catchphrase “no puppies were harmed in the writing of my PhD”.


Finding regular time to work on one’s PhD needs careful thought, planning and realism. Everyone works very differently in varying circumstances and this is an individual matter but time somehow must be identified – whether regular slots or chunks of working similar to the Pomodoro technique which was introduced as part of the Research and Development "Shut Up and Write" workshops this year, facilitated by Dr Olumide Adisa. I preferred to always keep my writing projects ‘on the boil’ for fear if I left it for any length of time I would never go back to it. There were opportunity costs and I think this is true of everyone –something has to give to find the extra time. In my case I didn’t watch any television for five years and chose to work in the evenings after work and when the children were in bed with a large G and T (that’s short for Gin and Tonic) by my computer to sustain me and the puppies now strictly banned from the study!. Because of my obsession with losing a grip on it, my budding thesis was very well travelled and came everywhere on holiday – plane journeys proved to be good reading time.

To keep focused, it is helpful to have your research question(s) on prominent display where you work. It is very easy to get distracted by articles etc that you come across but are not actually relevant to your research. Again, it is easy to slip into bad habits of writing swathes that again are not focusing on the research question. Having said that, in some exceptional cases, research questions can change as the PhD progresses (particularly in the first year) for varying reasons, your supervisors should be able to guide you through this process of reshaping your research questions.

Your relationship with your Supervisors is fundamental in your PhD journey and again what students want from this relationship varies enormously. I believe it is important to set out your expectations at the beginning of this long relationship and establish how you want to work with your supervisor, for example frequency of meetings. You need to agree some working arrangements about whether you see both supervisors together or individually or a combination of the two. In my experience, honesty and transparency are key in building trust to be able to talk to your supervisor(s) about your needs.

Always remember this is your PhD!

Supervisors want you to enjoy your research but also pass at the end. Sometimes it can be hard for students to hear critical feedback although this will only be in their best interests. It can take quite a shift to get into the PhD mindset, which is very different from Masters level study, and this time can sometimes be tricky for students and where frustration can set in–but bear with it!

I remember sitting in a café in Tottenham Court Road (I studied in London) in despair and contemplating giving up my PhD after a particularly difficult session where I realised that a questionnaire I had sent out already had design faults.

Therefore, it was back to the drawing board and having to find new participants from an already diminished pool! This is where ‘Why am I doing this’?’ has to have a solid answer, right from the start!

Take every opportunity to present your PhD to an academic audience as you go along - this gives you invaluable feedback and your peers will often offer new perspectives and challenging questions. It also gets you into the swing of defending your research and building the confidence, as you become an ‘expert’ in your subject. Take up as many opportunities to attend training sessions relevant to your PhD, these are generously offered at the University of Suffolk and can be transformative.

Finally, when you come to submit your PhD you will probably want to chuck it on the bonfire – but do give some time for reflection following this incredible achievement. I bet you will miss it when it is over and you are now an academic Doctor – what will you do with that time?

Good luck!

*Professor Penny Cavenagh recently joined the Graduate School in October 2018 in her role as primary supervisor. She also offers some mentoring support for PGRs and staff every Wednesday. She is super friendly and is always happy to share her experience. Email Penny at

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